What’s in the Sky
December is here, the last month of the year, Christmas, and the winter solstice. Clear nights are rare, but when they are clear darkness comes early. And there are always interesting things to see in the evening sky. Just bundle up!
In November, I had the chance to visit the Goldendale Observatory in their “soft opening”. While everything is not quite finished, the roomy theater, displays, and presentations were great. We were lucky enough to have skies clear enough to view the Moon through the telescope as well. The soft opening continues during the weekend after Christmas, December 27 to 29, with 2-4pm Solar shows and 6-9pm evening shows. Other than that, the facility is closed in December. Regular operations are expected to resume in January. I recommend checking the web page at http://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/ to confirm status before you go.
The Winter solstice and the start of winter comes on December 22 this year. On that day the Sun is lowest in the sky, about 21 degrees above the horizon at noon. If you were at the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun would be directly overhead. We will have about 8 hours and 38 minutes of daylight.
The bright planets Jupiter and Saturn are fading from view in December, but still are above the southwestern horizon at sunset. This month they will be joined by bright Venus. On December 1, look low in the southwest at 5pm, and find Jupiter low near the horizon, Venus to its left and higher in the sky, and Saturn to the left of Venus. Even further to the left, almost due south, will lie the crescent Moon. It should make for a nice lineup! Venus will get higher in the sky as the month progresses, night-by-night growing closer to Saturn. On the 10th, Venus will be just below Saturn, and by Dec. 20 will be well to the left of Saturn, and higher in the sky. It is always interesting to watch the apparent movement of the planets in the sky as they circle the Sun. It is easy to see why the word “planet” was derived from Greek, which means “wanderer”. The planets appear to wander across the sky, rather than being in seemingly fixed locations like the stars.
Our Moon will be full on the 12th of December, with new Moon on the 26th. The nearly full Moon will lie just below the Pleiades star cluster on December 10.
Early December will provide a good opportunity to see the International Space Station fly overhead. The best nights are December 5, starting at about 5:56pm, December 7, at about 5:55pm, and December 8, at about 5:07pm. These are some of the times when the ISS will be high overhead. There are other passes too, check out Heavens-above.com for those times. Enter your location in the program, and look for “ISS” under “Satellites”.
A couple of small constellations, Triangulum and Aries, are high in the east in December, above the dazzling Pleiades star cluster. Triangulum, as the name suggests, can be seen as a triangle, formed by its 3 brightest stars. Look for it about 25 degrees above the Pleiades, a bit to the right. 25 degrees is about the width of your spread-out hand, held at arm’s length. Triangulum is best known as the location of a nearby galaxy, the Triangulum galaxy, about 2.7 million light-years distant. As galaxies go, it is one of our neighbors.
If you locate Triangulum, look just below it to find Aries, the ram, as a line of several relatively dim stars. Aries is one of the 12 Zodiac constellations, the ones that the Sun passes through during the year. A couple of thousand years ago, the Sun was in Aries when spring began, the vernal equinox. Today, the Sun is in neighboring Pisces at that time. As the Earth rotates, it wobbles slightly, taking about 26,000 years to complete one wobble, called Precession. That causes the Earth’s polar axis to be pointed to a different place in the sky over time.
Use the picture with this article to locate this small constellations. Check them out when you are watching for Santa!
What’s in the Sky
September is here, when summer comes to an end and fall begins. The Autumnal Equinox occurs this year on September 23, when the Sun crosses the equator, going south. Night and day are of approximately equal length at that time.
Jupiter and Saturn, the solar system’s largest planets, still dominate the southern evening sky, even though they are now farther away from us than last month. Jupiter is now in the southwest, and sets in the late evening hours. It is still large enough to be impressive in a telescope, and the 4 large Galilean moons are visible. Saturn remains higher in the southern sky in September, setting after midnight, and is still impressive in a telescope.
The inner planets – Mercury, Venus, and Mars, are all missing from the evening sky, but the outer planets Uranus and Neptune join Jupiter and Saturn during September nights. Uranus is technically visible to the naked eye, but is too dim to easily pick out from nearby stars. Neptune is not visible to the naked eye and requires a telescope to see. Neptune reaches opposition, when it is closest to us, on Sept. 8.
Those 4 outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – give you a feeling for how large the solar system is. In September, Jupiter will be about 500 million miles from us. Saturn will be almost twice that far, about 900 million miles. But they are neighbors compared to Uranus (about 1,700,000 miles distant) and Neptune (2,680,000 miles). To put those distances in perspective, let’s say we traveled to them in a spacecraft that went at the speed of the fastest Apollo Moon mission – over 24,000 miles per hour. Even at that speed, a trip to Jupiter would take over 2 years, Saturn 4 years, Uranus almost 8, and Neptune over 12 years. The solar system is big!
September will be a good month for viewing the International Space Station. Some good evening passes will be on Sept. 21 at about 8:45pm, and Sept. 22 at about 7:55pm. If you are an early riser, check out Sept. 11 at about 5:45am. Until mid-September, the ISS will only be visible in the morning. As time gets closer, use the website Heavens-Above (heavens-above.com) to get a more accurate time for the flyover.
Fall constellations, such as Pegasus and Andromeda, are rising in the east during September. Look for the “great square” of Pegasus low in the east after sunset. The square, made up of 4 almost identically bright stars, is “tilted” as you view it, and it might look to you more like a baseball diamond. Andromeda lies to the left of Pegasus, and includes the Andromeda galaxy, another galaxy that is visible to the naked eye. The galaxy is quite faint, and requires a dark sky to see it. Get the location from the picture with this column, and use a pair of binoculars to help locate it. You’ll see an oval smudge of light, that’s it. You are looking at light that left the galaxy about 2.5 million years ago.
Enjoy September’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
Happy New Year to all! It is hard to believe, but this begins the 15th year in which I’ve written this little column, 175 in all to date. And, it makes me think now might be a good time to try something a little different, sort of a New Year’s resolution. What might that be? Each month this year I’ll mention something interesting in the sky that you can see with binoculars.
Most of you reading this probably do not own a telescope….or don’t think you do. But most of you own a pair of binoculars – and they can be very nice low-power telescopes. Best are those with larger objective lenses, 50mm or 40mm, but even smaller ones can work well. They are also easy to use, and certainly more portable than most telescopes. They may not magnify a great deal, but they do show a wider field of view, helpful for open star clusters, interesting star pairings, or just viewing the star clouds of the Milky Way.
This month’s object is the Pleiades, the bright star cluster in the constellation Taurus, high in the southern January sky. The cluster is hard to miss, above and to the right of Orion, and to the right of the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. The cluster is also known as the “7 sisters” and in Japan is called Subaru. Yes, the car is named after the cluster.
The cluster will fill the view of your binoculars with a dazzling display of stars. Through most telescopes, the field of view is too narrow, and you only see some of the stars. So the Pleiades are a great object to view with binoculars. To many the cluster looks like a mini version of the big dipper. The stars are related, being born from the same cloud of gas and dust. The stars are about 430 light-years away.
We’ll be greeted to a nice sight on the evening of New Year’s Day, with the waxing crescent Moon in the southern sky, and bright Venus in the southwest. Full Moon will follow on the 10th, and new Moon will come on January 24. If skies are clear on the 25th, and you have a good view low in the southwest, test those binoculars again, and see if you can find the faint crescent new Moon, just to the left of the planet Mercury. Look right after sunset, as the Moon and Mercury will set by about 5:50pm. Sunset will be at about 5.
Mercury will be low in the southwestern sky for the remainder of late January, a good time to spot the elusive little planet. It will be lower in the sky, and to the right of bright Venus. Venus will be easy to spot in all of January, after sunset. Another nice pairing with the Moon will occur on the 28th, when they will be close together in our sky.
The bright outer planets will not be in the January evening sky. You can find Jupiter very low in the southeast at sunrise. Saturn will be to the left of Jupiter, but basically too low to see before sunrise. Mars, much fainter than the two gas giants, will be above and to the right of Jupiter in the morning sky. Look for it on January 20, when the Moon will lie just above it.
Enjoy January’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
June brings the summer solstice and the start of summer. This year June will also bring the closest approach of the planet Jupiter, a conjunction of the planets Mercury and Mars, and the first appearance this year of Saturn in the evening sky. Yes, darkness comes late, but nights are warmer and we usually have more clear nights. A good month to enjoy the night skies!
Yes, Jupiter is becoming prominent in the evening sky. It will reach “opposition”, when it is opposite the Sun in our sky, and closest to Earth – on the 10th. On the 10th it will rise at about sunset, and be highest in the sky at about 1am (midnight if we were not on daylight savings time). Even though it will be closest at that time, later in the month will be better for viewing Jupiter. The planet will appear just a tiny bit smaller, but will rise earlier, and be in a good position to view earlier in the evening. By the end of the month, Jupiter will rise at about 7:30pm, and be highest at about 11:30pm. Jupiter’s 4 largest moons are visible in a telescope, and even in binoculars, and it can be fun to try and spot them. Their positions near Jupiter change nightly, as they orbit the planet. A telescope also reveals the atmospheric bands on the planet, and even the elusive red spot. Jupiter will be easy to spot, as the brightest object (other than the Moon) in the southern sky.
Mid-June is a good time to catch our innermost planet, Mercury, and a conjunction between Mercury and Mars. A conjunction is simply when two celestial bodies appear close together from our viewpoint. You will have to look low in the west right after sunset. Start looking around June 10. Mercury will be in the west-northwest, about 10 degrees above the horizon at sunset. Your clenched fist, held at arm’s length, covers about 10 degrees. A pair of binoculars should help locate Mercury, especially right after sunset. Mars will be above and to the left of Mercury, and not as bright. If you watch them on subsequent nights, they’ll grow closer together, with closest approach on the 17th and 18th. Although they appear close together, Mars is actually about 2 ½ times as far from us as Mercury.
Our Moon will be new on June 3, with full Moon following on the 17th of the month. The bright, nearly full Moon will be near Jupiter on the 15th and 16th, and near Saturn on the 18th.
The ringed planet Saturn is just starting to appear in the evening sky. Look for it low in the southeastern sky in the second half of the month. Saturn rises around midnight in early June, and will rise at about 9:30pm at the end of the month. Better viewing will come in July and August.
On June 23 it will be about as far from the Sun as it gets, and will be visible low in the western sky after sunset.
Summer constellations are starting to peek above the eastern horizon on June evenings. Look for the bright star Vega, about half-way up in the eastern sky. Vega is the brightest star in the small constellation Lyra. Just below Vega, find the Northern Cross (Cygnus the Swan) and the summer Milky Way. More about them in the next couple of months.
What’s in the Sky
May is here, and spring is in full swing. We will gain over an hour of daylight during the month, and usually see an increasing number of clear nights. Of course, you’ll have to stay up later to see the night sky – by the end of the month, sunset will not occur until about 8:48pm.
But there is plenty to see when the skies darken. May’s new Moon will occur on the 4th, early in the month, with full Moon following on the 18th. On the 7th, a really nice sight should be the thin crescent Moon lying just to the left of Mars. Look for them low in the western sky after sunset. The Moon will join Jupiter and Saturn in the morning sky later in the month. Look for the waning gibbous Moon near Jupiter on the 20th, and near Saturn on the 22nd, before sunrise.
The bright planets are mostly still missing in the evening sky. Mars is one exception; the red planet is still visible low in the west, near the Moon on the 7th as noted above. Mars will appear as a fairly bright “star” below the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Mars will be about the same brightness as those two stars. The even brighter star Auriga will be above and to the right of Mars.
Jupiter is starting to peek into the evening sky – if you stay up late. It rises at about 11:30pm at the start of the month, and will be above the horizon by 9:30pm by the end of May. Saturn rises at about 11:30pm by the end of May.
Spring constellations dominate the May southern sky. Look for Leo, the Lion, high in the south. The Lion’s head looks like a backwards question mark to me. The base of the question mark is the constellation’s brightest star, Regulus. To the left of Leo is a relatively faint constellation, Coma Berenices, or “Bernice’s hair”. On dark moonless nights, you can see the Coma star cluster, a large, diffuse cluster of relatively bright stars, which makes up Berenice’s tresses. Moving a bit farther to the left (southeast), look for the constellation Bootes, with the bright star Arcturus at its base. Arcturus is the 4th brightest star in the night sky.
May 18 is not only the date on which Mt. St. Helens erupted, but also the date that Apollo 10 launched, 50 years ago. Thomas Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan became the second Apollo crew to leave Earth orbit. In a “dress rehearsal” of the Moon landing, Stafford and Cernan piloted the Lunar Module to within 8 miles of the Moon’s surface. It was soon overshadowed by the Apollo 11 landing, but it was pretty impressive at the time. After the Lunar module docked with the Command Module, the Lunar module was jettisoned, and the astronauts returned to Earth in the Command Module. In other Apollo flights to the Moon, except for Apollo 13, the used Lunar module was left in lunar orbit, and eventually crashed into the Moon. Apollo 13’s lunar module burned up upon re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere. But Apollo 10’s module, nicknamed “Snoopy” was put into an orbit around the Sun. A few years ago British amateur astronomers attempted to locate Snoopy, but as far as I know were not successful. Space is enormous, and Snoopy is small!
Gene Cernan later flew on Apollo 17, and was the last Astronaut to walk on the Moon.
If stargazing and astronomy fascinate you, plan to stop by the Columbia Arts Center in Hood River, 7-9pm on May 29. Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist and science educator at Ohio State University, will give what should be a very informative talk. Sutter is an excellent speaker, check out his channel on YouTube. The Hood River event costs $10, and the proceeds go to the White Salmon Valley Education Foundation. Don’t miss it!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to April, our first full month of spring. As I write this in mid-March, with still over 2 feet of snow here in Trout Lake, spring sounds pretty nice.
April usually brings a greater chance of clear weather than the winter months, even if darkness comes later. Early in the month we’ll have nice dark skies, with new Moon coming on the 5th of the month.
It is always fun to follow the Moon as it crosses from night to night. On April 1, look for bright Venus at dawn, in the southeast. You may be able to detect the faint crescent Moon to the right of Venus. No fooling. On the 8th, look for the thin crescent Moon in the western evening sky, and find the planet Mars just above and to the right of the Moon (about the 1 o’clock position). The bright star Aldebaran will be above and to the left of the Moon. On the 9th, the Moon will have moved above Aldebaran. On the 14th, the now gibbous Moon will lie just above the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, and on the 18th the Moon will lie to the left of Spica, the brightest star in the dim constellation Virgo. Full Moon comes on the 19th. On the morning of the 23th, you’ll find the Moon very close to Jupiter, so close that you may be able to see them both at the same time in a binocular view. On the 25th the Moon will be just to the right of Saturn.
Venus is difficult to miss in the morning sky, as it is the brightest object in the night sky other than the Moon. Venus will have a companion in April, the planet Mercury. Look for Mercury to the left of Venus, before sunrise. Mercury is not nearly as bright as Venus, and will be a bit lower in the sky. Mercury will be brighter than most stars, but can still be difficult to see in the morning twilight. Our innermost planet never strays far from the Sun, and can be elusive. Many have never seen it.
Mars is the only bright planet in the evening sky, and will be visible all month. It will be easy to find on the 1st and 2nd of the month, as it will be located just to the left of the Pleiades, the bright star cluster in the constellation Taurus. We are growing farther away from Mars; the red planet is now farther from us than we are from the Sun. Our next close encounter with Mars will not be until fall of 2020.
April is the month of the Lyrid meteor shower. The shower peaks the night of April 22-23. Alas, this year an almost-full Moon will “wash out” dim meteors, making this not the best of years for the shower.
Early April will be a good time to view the Zodiacal light, which I’ve mentioned before in this column. You’ll need a dark sky, and a good view to the west after dark. The light, caused by sunlight reflecting from dust particles in our orbital path, is seen as a faint glow in the western sky, once the sky gets totally dark. It will extend up to about the location of the Pleiades in the western sky. Don’t confuse it with the earlier glow of twilight, or the light pollution from the Portland/Vancouver area low in the west.
April brings a piece of history to the State of Washington, something that some of you may be interested in. The Apollo 11 Moon Mission’s Command Module, the capsule that carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon and back, will be at Seattle’s Museum of flight from April 13 until early September. This July will be the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. Don’t miss it, I plan to make the trip for a visit!
WHAT'S IN THE SKY MARCH 2019
It is hard to believe that March is already here, it seems the year has just begun. Spring is almost here, and the switch to daylight savings time is coming soon. March also brings warmer weather – sometimes!
Daylight savings time begins on March 10. Remember to “spring ahead” by setting your clocks forward an hour. By shifting everything one hour later, we have later sunrises and later sunsets. “DST” was first proposed by a New Zealand entomologist, who figured he would have more spare time after work for collecting insects with later sunsets. That never came to pass. Germany instituted it during WWI, as a way to minimize use of coal in wartime. In 1918 the US and other countries adopted it. It became even more common in WWII, and during the 1970s energy crisis. DST is used in the US except for the states of Arizona and Hawaii, and some overseas territories, mostly tropical. Near the equator, day length does not change much from summer to winter, minimizing the value. Currently, bills in a number of state Legislatures, including Washington, propose to change to DST year-round. I am pretty sure that would require federal approval.
Spring arrives on March 20, when the Sun lies above the equator, and day and night length are about equal. This year, that is also the date of the full Moon.
That full Moon is another “Supermoon”, a relatively new moniker attached to the Moon when it is a bit closer than average in its orbit around the Earth. It will be slightly larger than on average, but not enough that many will notice. Advertising a “Supermoon” does bring more interest to Earth’s satellite, which I think is good. But don’t be fooled by pictures of an enormous Moon rising over trees – that is accomplished with telephoto lenses. Take out a soda straw, and look at the full Moon through it. You’ll be able to see the entire Moon in the straw. Even a Supermoon.
New Moon comes early in the Month, on March 6. On the 11th, you’ll find Mars just to the right of the Moon in the evening sky. On the 11th, find the Moon next to the Pleiades star cluster, and on the 12th next to the Hyades cluster.
March 3rd brings a bit of history – 50 years since the launch of Apollo 9, one of the precursors of the Moon landing later in 1969. Apollo 9 was the first time the Lunar Module, the spacecraft that actually landed on the Moon, was tested in Earth orbit. Astronauts were able to test the engines of the module and practice docking with the Command Module, the craft that brought the Astronauts back to Earth. Later that year I was able to hear a talk by David Scott, one of the Apollo 9 astronauts, describing the flight, at the University of Michigan. I still remember what an exciting time it was, everyone knew an attempt to land on the Moon was coming soon. The success of Apollo 9, and Apollo 10 in May, paved the way for that historic Moon landing in July.
Our only planet in March’s evening sky is Mars. And the red planet is growing fainter. On March 1, Mars will be about 165 million miles from Earth, and that will stretch to about 188 million miles by the end of the month. When it was closest last summer, it was about 36 million miles from us. Quite a difference!
Actually there is another planet visible in early March – Mercury. The closest planet to the Sun will be low in the west after sunset, best the first week of March. Mercury is actually pretty bright, but is always near the Sun, and can get lost in the Sun’s glare. A clear view of the western horizon is necessary, and look right after sunset.
Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus are all prominent in the morning sky in March, forming a line of bright “stars” in the southeast and south. A nice sight will occur on March 1, when the waning crescent Moon will lie very near Saturn. Saturn will be just to the left of the Moon.
I mentioned earlier that the Moon will pass in front of the star cluster Hyades on March 12. The Hyades is an “open star cluster” composed of about 100 stars that all are about the same age and makeup. They make an interesting sight, combined with the bright star Aldebaran nearby. They make up the head of the constellation Taurus, the Bull. The Hyades are one of the closest star clusters to our solar system, being “only” about 150 light years distant.
Welcome to February, our shortest month and the last full month of winter. Winter’s wane can be seen in the increasing length of daylight, which becomes noticeable in February. At the start of the month, sunrise is at 7:28 am, with sunset following at 5:11 pm. By the end of the month, those times will be 6:46 am and 5:51 pm, an increase in daylight of 1 hour and 22 minutes, by my math. Groundhog Day, on February 2, is known as a “cross-quarter” day, midway between the start of winter and the start of spring. We are on the downside of winter. Having said that, it’ll probably snow 2 feet on the day you read this, right?
Once again, our bright planets are mostly in the morning sky in February. Mars is an exception, although the red planet is growing farther away and fainter the entire month. Mars will be located in the southwestern sky, a bright “star” about ½ the way up in the sky, in the constellation Pisces and Aries. Look for it as a bright star below the Pleiades star cluster. On the 10th, the crescent Moon will lie just to the left of Mars.
Mercury, our innermost planet, will be visible during evenings in later February. Since Mercury is so close to the Sun, it never appears very far from the Sun as we see it. The best time to look for it will be mid-month, right after sunset. Mercury will be brighter than most stars, and will be brighter than Mars. But Mercury has to compete with the Sun’s glare, and only a partially-dark sky to view it. Find a location with a view of the low, western horizon to see it.
Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn will all be morning objects in February. At the start of the month, Venus and Jupiter will be very prominent in the eastern sky before sunrise. As the month progresses, those two will become farther apart as we see them. Later in the month, Saturn will join the show, low and to the left of Venus. On the 18th, we’ll have a nice conjunction, with Saturn sitting just below Venus. After the 18th, Saturn will be to the right of Venus in the sky.
Early February will present some good times to view the International Space Station as it passes overhead. The best will be on February 5 and 8, when the station passes almost directly overhead. On the 5th, it should appear at about 6:50pm, in the west-northwest. It will move from the northwest, high overhead, and then drop into the southeastern sky. Before it gets to the horizon, it should fade from view, as the ISS enters Earth’s shadow. On the 8th, the pass will start at about 5:50pm, again in the northwest, moving across the sky to the southeast, passing through the familiar constellation Orion. This pass should be entirely visible, and the ISS will be brighter than any of the stars. The reason we see the ISS, and other satellites, is that they are reflecting sunlight. Even though night has fallen down here on Earth, satellites in orbit 100 miles or more above the Earth are still in daylight. The International Space Station orbits about 250 miles above the Earth.
Our Moon will start the month as a very thin crescent in the morning sky, to the left of Venus and Jupiter. These three will be in a straight line, and should provide a nice view in the southeastern sky. New Moon will follow on the 4th. After that, Earth’s natural satellite will be in the evening sky. On the 13th, the first-quarter Moon will lie in the open star cluster the Hyades, in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Full Moon will be on the 19th.
A constellation we associate with spring will be starting to appear in the eastern evening sky in March – Leo the Lion. Look for what appears to me as a “backwards question mark”, the head of the Lion. The bright star Regulus is at the base of the mark, and three similarly bright stars make up the rear end of the Lion. One good way to locate Leo is to look “below” the dipper cup in the Big Dipper. A faint constellation, Leo Minor, lies between the dipper and Leo.
What’s in the Sky
Happy New Year 2019! We have a great sight to start the New Year, on New Year’s Day morning. The waning crescent Moon will lie low in the southeast, with bright Venus right below it, and Jupiter below and to the left of the pair. So jump out of bed at 7am and take in the sight. Of course, maybe you’re NOT getting up early after celebrating the New Year. In that case, try January 2nd. The crescent Moon will now be between Venus and Jupiter, also a very nice sight. Venus and the Moon will have another close conjunction at the end of the month, on the morning of January 31.
Speaking of January 31, some may remember that we had a lunar eclipse on that day last January. This year we’ll have another January eclipse, on the 20th. The eclipse wills start at about 6:45pm, although the initial stages are faint, and will hardly be detectible. At about 7:45pm, the darker, full shadow of the Earth will start to move across the Moon. By about 8:40pm, the Moon will be fully eclipsed. As with all lunar eclipses, the Moon will be visible, although it will be much darker, and reddish in color. At about 9:45pm the Moon will start to leave the full eclipsed stage, and the entire event will be over by about 10:45pm. Check it out if skies are clear! Consider going to the Goldendale Observatory temporary home, at the Stonehenge replica south of Goldendale. I plan to be there!
Note on the eclipse: You may read articles that say the eclipse will occur on January 21. The eclipse will be visible across the US, and parts of Europe will also see totality. But in Europe, it will already be Jan. 21 when the event occurs. Even our east coast will see some of totality after midnight. So, in some places it is described as occurring on the 21st. But here on the west coast, the eclipse will occur on the evening of the 20th.
The bright planets are no longer in the evening sky, except for Mars. The red planet is moving away from us, and growing fainter. Look for Mars, high in the southern sky, after sunset. Early in the month, look below the “Great Square” of Pegasus if you recognize that feature. Mars will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. By the end of the month, Mars will have moved to the east relative to the stars, and will be located to the left of the great Square.
Jupiter and Venus are in the January morning sky, and will “pass” each other during the month. Early in the month, Venus will be higher in the sky, and to the right of Jupiter. Each morning they will appear closer together, until they pass each other on the 22nd of the month.
Brave the cold on a clear January night and check out the bright winter constellations. Orion is familiar to many, with its “belt” of three equally bright stars in a line. Look just below the belt to the “sword”, a line of three stars that extends downward below the belt. Train a pair of binoculars on those stars, and you should be able to make out the hazy cloud of the Orion nebula. See if you can pick it out. The two brightest stars in Orion are Betelgeuse, in the left-side shoulder, and Rigel, in the right-side foot.
Look above and to the right of Orion, and see a bright, reddish star named Aldebaran. Aldebaran makes up one of the eyes of Taurus, the bull. The bull’s horns extend above Orion’s head. With a little imagination, you can picture the blood-red eye of an angry bull, bearing down on Orion. Aldebaran is a “red giant” star, some 44 times the diameter of our Sun. Aldebaran means “leader” in Arabic. The star gets the name as it “leads” the nearby Pleiades star cluster across the sky.
Here is a stargazing article for December. Please note this one is a bit different, not "What's in the Sky" but about the Apollo 8 Mission to the Moon, which occurred 50 years ago this month, the first time humans left Earth orbit, something I remember well.
The "Earthrise" photo is public domain
What’s In the Sky
I am taking a break this month from a “What’s in the sky” report to talk about a bit of history. We have a landmark this month: 50 years ago, humans left the vicinity of Earth for the first time, travelling to our natural satellite, the Moon.
The December, 1968 mission was Apollo 8, the second manned flight of the Apollo program that would land astronauts on the Moon the next year. Apollo 8 was significant in that it was the first time we left low Earth orbit. At that time, we had become accustomed to having astronauts circle the Earth, as part of the initial Mercury program, and the following Gemini program. The Mercury program put the first Americans in space, and the Gemini program featured the first American Space Walk, and the first docking of capsules in Earth orbit. But Apollo 8 brought a new horizon, with astronauts leaving the relative nearness and safety of Earth orbit.
Apollo 8 carried 3 astronauts, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. The mission lifted off on December 21, 1968, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Saturn V rocket carried only the Command Module, and did not have a Lunar Module, the vehicle later used to land on the Moon’s surface. The Lunar module was not yet ready for flight. It took the mission 68 hours to reach the Moon. They orbited the Moon ten times during the mission.
Apollo 8 was not only the first mission to leave Earth orbit, it also was the first time humans had seen the far side of the Moon. Our Moon’s rotation is locked in with its orbit, so we always see the same side. Borman, Lovell, and Anders thus were the first humans to experience the Moon’s far side.
Apollo 8 orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve. The Astronauts made a live television broadcast, showing the Earth rising above the gray surface of the Moon. The Astronauts recited verses from Genesis. It was an event I will always remember.
The television view was black-and-white, and quite grainy. But the Astronauts also took some color pictures from the Spacecraft during their mission, to be processed upon return to Earth. No digital photos in those days! The astronauts were particularly stunned when, as they orbited the Moon, the blue Earth rose on the horizon. They scrambled to get pictures. One photo, taken by Astronaut Anders, became one of the 100 most influential photographs of the 20th Century, per Life Magazine. You have almost certainly seen the photo, called “Earthrise”.
“Earthrise” was particularly iconic, as it presented a new perspective of our Earth to many people. The world on which we all live appeared as a little blue oasis, contrasting with the gray of the Moon’s surface, and the stark emptiness of space. From afar, we did not see different nations, peoples, and conflicts. We saw one little blue planet, with its thin atmosphere, harboring all humans and all life. That perspective helped serve as an impetus to the first Earth Day in 1970 – it helped show us how important it was to protect and value the planet on which we all live.
I like to call the photo “Serendipity”. Serendipity is an unexpected, positive outcome of an event or happening. With Apollo 8, we left Earth to learn more about our Moon. But we also developed a better appreciation of our own home, a new perspective made possible by simply viewing Earth from afar.
I am sure some of you reading this can recall Apollo 8 and the other Apollo missions. For those of you too young, I can only say it is hard to describe how enthralling it was, both the scientific discovery, and the emotion it brought to many.
Next year we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon Landing. I’ll have a few words to say about that too.
In the meantime, Happy Holidays and clear skies. And take a gaze at our Moon if it is clear on Christmas Eve.